Collaborative Fieldwork

Having the opportunity to conduct fieldwork is, for me at least, one of the best bits of being a researcher. What’s not to love about travelling to exotic (or even not-so-exotic) locations and meeting interesting people? I also enjoy the serendipity and unpredictability of fieldwork. Despite the best-laid plans, there is no knowing what might happen tomorrow or when your research could take an unexpected turn.

Now that I have completed several trips to ‘the field’, I can see that my own approach to fieldwork has changed considerably. Perhaps this is just indicative of a learning curve that all researchers experience. In any case, I thought that I would raise the idea of collaborative fieldwork for those of you who are preparing to set out for ‘the field’ yourselves.

PhD research is, almost by definition, an individual pursuit. Earning your doctorate will ultimately depend on your ability to demonstrate to the examiners that you have made an original contribution to knowledge. In the social sciences and humanities, this is rarely achieved through group work. I suspect that this has something to do with why our fieldwork is, by and large, an individual activity as well. After all, it is at this stage of the research process when you collect the evidence necessary for making your all-important original contribution.

When I conducted my PhD fieldwork in Madagascar, I intuitively adopted the mindset of a solo investigator. Sure there were plenty of other people involved: research assistants, gatekeepers, participants, community leaders, and local acquaintances. But at the end of the day, the research was mine and I called the shots.

Compare that characterization to the fieldwork that I conducted in Papua New Guinea last month. In this instance, I was conducting research with a colleague from PNG and had brought along an Australian student to work as our RA. The research was also embedded in a longstanding relationship that my colleague has with our host community. So the research was not only mine and ours (the three-person research team), but also theirs (the participants). Coming up with an agenda that suited everyone required negotiation and flexibility. Not everything went to plan. But the three-person research team configuration in particular proved incredibly beneficial.

While my colleague and I facilitated the research activities, our RA documented the process. This meant that I could focus all of my energy on the participants and our interaction without worrying about whether the video cameras were working or trying to simultaneously lead a discussion and take detailed field notes. In the evenings, all three of us would get together to go over the day’s activities; often we recorded these conversations as well. Initially, it was surprising how we had each picked up on quite different details. Sometimes this could be attributed to vantage point, at others language skills. There is no doubt, however, that three heads were better than one.

This experience has made me wonder how much richer my PhD research might have been had I adopted a similar approach in Madagascar. I did arrive in the country on my own, but I could have easily built up the sort of three-person team described above. In fact, simply fostering a more collaborative relationship with my research assistants, rather than using them primarily as translators, might have made a considerable difference. It would have taken some work early on to train someone in documentation skills or set a precedent for discussing the day’s activities before heading our separate ways, but I now suspect that it would have been well worth the effort in the long run.

So, if you are starting to think about your own fieldwork, I would encourage you to consider how you might adopt a collaborative approach. It is still up to you to do the work, collect the evidence you need and write it up in a compelling way. But in the heady chaos of fieldwork, collaboration has strong advantages over going it alone.

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